Given the apparent pre-requisites for recognition in the world of American radio—drums, catchy riffs, memorable refrains—it seems completely out of synch that an unknown singer-songwriter with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a stark production could garner critical praise and chart action. Even the best established artists have tried this approach and failed. Surely Bruce Springsteen rarely heard cuts from his acoustic outings, Nebraska or The Ghost Of Tom Joad, on the radio. And Roseanne Cash hardly broke the airwaves with her country-flavored efforts. So how does a young upstart from Old Town, Maine break into the charts against all odds?
“It is very odd,” admits singer-songwriter Patty Griffin in a recent conversation.
“You know 50 years ago no one would have even imagined that you’d need a
drum kit, an electric bass and guitar to make a record and get played on
the radio. Back then people just got up and sang. So, in that respect I
am really breaking some norms here, but I have really been lucky because
certain disc jockeys picked up on my record and played it to the chagrin
of their program directors. That at least got me and the story rolling.”
Once you’re rolling momentum usually takes care of the rest. As a result,
Patty Griffin is getting airplay and succeeding where others of much more
visible stature have failed. Even odder is the fact that Griffin’s songs
are largely angst-ridden confessionals that relate to her past. No bright-eyed
ditties here. Her powerful delivery and personal revelations further augment
her ground-breaking phenomenon.
“I think people recognize honesty and truth in an artist,” offers Griffin,
continuing, “And in that sense these songs bring them to a similar place
where they become more honest and truthful and that’s a lot of the appeal.
Although, I have to admit there have been times when I’ve tried to listen
to my record and wonder why people want to hear it.”
That’s not hard to understand. The songs are personal reflections of events
or times that were anything but cheery and to that extent they cut too close
to the bone for Griffin. “It’s kind of like therapy, to have to do this,
it is a form of a healing process. But I also know that I love it and I
know that people want to hear it because it frees them up as well.”
Griffin’s songs are filled with personal heart-wrenching vignettes. And
whether they are completely personal or simply the witnessed events of friends
or acquaintances, it is the underlying sense of honesty that prevails. It’s
“I started doing this to express myself,” admits Griffin, “So I work hard
everyday at trying to do that. There are lots of times when it doesn’t happen,
but it is the process that is most important; to just get it down and be
as honest and truthful as you can be. A lot of it depends on how constructive
you can be with what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.””
Living With Ghosts, Griffin’s major label and trend-breaking debut for
A&M Records reeks with honesty at every turn. “Sweet Lorraine” bears
witness to the abusive railings of a father and his strong-willed daughter,
while “Poor Man’s House” tackles growing up in abject poverty and “Every
Little Bit,” the radio “hit” offers a venomous attack at unrequited love.
“Friends have told me that they thought I was too angry sometimes; that
I scared them because of it, but I’m not trying to sound angry, it’s simply
how I do what I do.”
What she does is fairly clear. The president of A&M Records was so
impressed with her rough demo that he issued the order to release it as is.
“When I first signed to A&M, they hooked me up with a producer who tried
all kinds of things with my songs,” she remembers. “But nothing worked,
at least nothing that I felt right about. I thought I wanted a rock ‘n roll
sound because that’s what I always thought of myself as and because that’s
what I listened to. But I never had experience at it so it didn’t work.”
Griffin paid her dues working the coffeehouses of Boston, offering her
songs in sparse, acoustic settings. That was what she did best. It’s how
she learned and in the end it’s what won her the attention, the recording
contract and the airplay. As a result, trying to fit into a slick production
mold, was a wasted effort. The raw emotion was gone, the veneer too smooth.
“I can remember sitting on the edge of bathtub in Jamaica Plain writing
these songs alone,” she recalls, chuckling. “And then the next day going
to the studio to record them. And now here they are on the radio in the
exact same form. So the experience has been pretty rich, but it also presents
a whole new set of challenges, but that’s kind of true of everyone’s life,
or why bother.”